Episode 067: How to Get Your Kids to Behave in the Car

Are your kids big stinks in the back seat of your car?  Are they driving you nuts while you’re driving them places?  Then you’ll want to check out this episode.  Janet Cazier, LMFT and mom of seven gives her top tips for getting your kids to behave well while in the car.  Her tips are seriously awesome!  I feel like I have so many more tools to use now. Happy learning!

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Janet Cazier, LMFT

Sometimes kids can be the biggest stinkers in the car!  They know that you are occupied with driving, you can’t reach them, you’re limited in what consequences you can give them, and that tempts them to use behaviors that aren’t the best.

Luckily, I’m going to share some tips with you that will help your kids behave a lot better when you’re driving places.

The most important things that I want you to get out of this are:

  1. Kids CAN learn how to behave in the care
  2. You need to be REALLY clear about what behaviors are not tolerated in the care
  3. You need to find creative ways to make misbehaving in the car NO FUN for your kids (read on to learn how)
  4. You need to be consistent in responding to poor behavior with an appropriate consequence.

Let’s dive deeper.

Tip #1 Get clear with your kids BEFORE you get in the car

This step is so critical.  You need to give your kids a fighting chance at behaving well by talking with them about what kinds of behaviors are OK are which aren’t.  We’re talking so clear you even write it down.

I find that this goes better if you find a way to make it fun and allow your kids to give a lot of input.  This helps them see it positively and be more committed to the plan.

Here’s a fun, collaborative way I teach people:

  1. Get out three sheets of paper
  2. Label sheet one: “Things we can’t do in the car”.  I make it fun by calling this “Skunk” behavior (behavior that stinks)
  3. Label sheet two: “Things we can do in the car that are fun!” I call this category “Monkey” behavior (because it’s silly like monkeys)
  4. Label sheet three: “Quiet things we can do in the car”.  I call this category “Angel” behavior (because it’s quiet and sweet like an angel)
  5. Discuss each “category” with your kids and brainstorm ideas for each category on the paper.
  6. Next, teach your kids that “Skunk” behavior is NEVER ok and will always get a consequence
  7. Then, teach your kids that “Monkey” behavior is often OK but from time to time, you will need “Angel” behavior (times when you need to concentrate or have a headache, etc.)
  8. For the next little while, review behaviors in each category so that your kids remember what is expected in the car.

Tip #2 Give a consequence when your kids use behavior that’s not allowed in the car

Having an appropriate consequence for negative behavior is completely healthy and appropriate.  Some parents are afraid to give their children consequences.  There are some consequences that should be avoided, you can learn more about those here.  But consequences are what make misbehavior uncomfortable for children and make them think twice before misbehaving.  We want our kids thinking about their choices!

If you are wondering if consequences damage our children, check out this post.

I will tell you, this is where you’re going to need to be creative.  Giving a consequence at home is so simple, but giving one in the car is tricky.  Here’s a list of ideas to try, but remember the key is:

Make your child’s misbehavior a problem for THEM not for YOU!

Idea #1 Pull Over

This idea works great if you’re not in a rush.  I would suggest even planning on leaving really early for things if you’d like to try this one.  However, I have found it really effective to have a camp chair and a book you love in the back of the car.  Then when kids are using “Skunk” behavior, you can simply pull over, say “Bummer, you are using X behavior and that’s just not allowed in my car.  I will get back in when you’re done.”, then hop out and enjoy some reading time.

Your kids may continue to be stinkers a little while longer, but it’s no big deal to you, because the longer they misbehave, the longer you get to read.

When they are behaving well again, you hop back in the car and continue on your drive.

Idea #2 Have the child do a time-out when you get to your destination or when you get home

There is no problem saying to your child “Bummer, you used some behaviors that are on our “skunk” list.  Now you get to hang out on this chair or in your room for X amount of minutes.  We’ll try again next time we’re in the car!”

Idea #3 Let the misbehaving child miss out on the fun thing you’re doing

I like to tell parents to plan some trips to get a treat or go somewhere fun with the express purpose of teaching positive behavior in the car.  If misbehavior has been a problem, it’s OK to create some learning opportunities for the kids.

So plan to go somewhere or do something that your stinker enjoys, then if they’re using inappropriate behavior on the way there, turn around and take them home.  I think it’s best to leave that child with another adult, then take the rest of the kids to go do the fun thing anyway.  This may sound so harsh, but how many times do you think that you would need to do this before the misbehaving child decides that it’s worth it to behave in the car?  Not too many times.  You’re creating an uncomfortable consequence one time could save your a hundred times of frustrating behavior!  Plus, it teaches your child how to control their behavior.  What a critical life skill to have!

What if you’re not heading somewhere fun and the kids misbehave?  You can still use this.  Simply say, “Bummer, I was thinking about taking you all to get ice cream later today, but you’ve been using behaviors we don’t use in the car and now I can’t take you.  We’ll try again another time.”

Be creative, you will think of some way to make their misbehavior in the car a problem for them so it won’t be a problem for you.

Tip #3 REMEMBER: Lead with empathy and keep your cool

Using consequences only works long-term if you do it in a calm manner and with a lot of empathy.  Your kids will shut down and misbehave if you’re giving consequences with shame, anger, yelling, hitting, etc.  Your kids are LEARNING and you can empathize when they have to experience a consequence.  This allows you to stay connected to them WHILE teaching them to make correct choices.  SO much research shows that having rules/consequences BALANCED with lots of love produces kids that happy and healthy!  Learn more about that here.

Tip #4 Know that it’s OK to ask your kids for “Angel” behavior when you need it

There are going to be times that you need your kids to be really quiet in the car.  Times when you need to focus, times when you have a headache, times when you’re so overstimulated that you can’t take another peep.  It is OK and very healthy to tell you kids that they can’t even do happy yet noisy activities in the car, that they need to do quiet activities.

You can have needs in the car and expect your kids to respect those needs.

Sometimes parents are hesitant to express their needs.  They feel like they should sacrifice everything for their kids.  Even their own health and happiness.  This is NOT healthy.  Parents need to take care of their own needs so they can meet the needs of others in their life.  If you need it quiet in the car, that is OK.  If you have a headache, need to talk on the phone, need to focus, that is OK.

Standing up for your needs will teach your children healthy ways to stand up for their own.  This will help them in their future life and future relationships.

If you ask for “angel” behavior and they continue to be “Monkeys” it is appropriate to give them a consequence.  They need to learn to respect you and in turn they will later be more likely to respect themselves.

Final Thoughts:

It is very normal kids to be crazy and challenging in the car.  However, they can learn how to behave in a way that works for the WHOLE family.  Your creativity and consistency will be what teaches them.  Expect it to be hard at first, but I promise it will get better over time.

Happy Parenting!

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